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DND makes case for buying F-35s in terse, 160-word letter

The Lockheed Martin Joint Strike Fighter is shown after it was unveiled in a ceremony in Fort Worth, Texas, in this July 7, 2006, file photo.

Ron T. Ennis/AP

Pressed to justify why Canada should forgo a competition to select the country's next fighter jet, the Department of National Defence offered up less than 160 words to make its case, a key government document in the F-35 controversy shows.

Canada's federal spending watchdog cited this June 1, 2010, letter in a report last month that criticized Ottawa's handling of the $25-billion F-35 purchase.

And this document has now surfaced after the Commons public accounts committee demanded it from the government.

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The letter runs through a short defence of the F-35, including the assertion the jet meets the "mandatory operational requirements" of the Canadian Forces – a statement it doesn't flesh out.

Auditor-General Michael Ferguson used the letter as an example of how the government cut corners in reviewing its options before announcing to Canadians in July, 2010, that it had decided to buy 65 F-35 jets without a competition.

The letter informed Public Works – the buying arm of government – that DND needed a "fifth-generation fighter" because such planes are good at avoiding detection by radar and drawing in data from different sensors.

It uses "very" twice to support its choice of the F-35, saying it has "very very low observable stealth capabilities."

Also, nothing else was available in the West, DND said in the letter.

"No other available Western-produced fighter aircraft has these capabilities nor could they be modified to make them fifth-generation fighters," the letter said.

Mr. Ferguson had noted in his hard-hitting April report that senior Public Works officials had grown worried they "had not been provided sufficient justification" for DND's insistence that no other jet would do.

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The watchdog noted that a decision to skip a competition is typically supported by a formal statement of operational requirements and options analysis – although in buying rules, such documents are not mandatory.

In this case, however, Defence's rationale was covered in about five sentences, including the final pitch that having the jets would make it easier for Canada to operate alongside defence allies around the globe who were also buying them.

Mr. Ferguson, though, wasn't impressed. In his April 3 report, he noted that calling something "fifth-generation" wasn't really a useful selling point.

"It is important to note that the term … is not a description of an operational requirement," the auditor-general wrote in his F-35 report.

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Steven Chase has covered federal politics in Ottawa for The Globe since mid-2001, arriving there a few months before 9/11. He previously worked in the paper's Vancouver and Calgary bureaus. Prior to that, he reported on Alberta politics for the Calgary Herald and the Calgary Sun, and on national issues for Alberta Report. More

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